Roman Conquest of Hispania

Rome: The conquest of Hispania.

The arrival of the Romans in Iberia in 219/8 BC was no accident. They landed there as a military force determined to defeat their rivals, the Carthaginians, from whom they had already conquered the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. The Carthaginians were already well established in the Iberian Peninsula, and as long as they controlled it they were a threat to Roman expansion.   The war in Iberia lasted some 12 years, after which Carthage was finished as a Mediterranean power.

The Romans claimed to be liberators of the tribes under Carthagininan dominance, but once in Iberia, they soon realised the economic potential of the territory, and the principle of liberating the natives from their Carthaginian overlords was soon replaced by that of permanent residence.

           Hispania circa 197 BC.  Wikimedia.
As early as 197 BC, Rome signalled its intentions, dividing its conquered
possessions into two provinces, Hispania Citerior (running down the east coast and inland) and Hispania Ulterior (roughly modern Andalusia). However, whether expansion from the south and east to the rest of the peninsula was planned or was the result of ensuring safe boundaries, or even the result of personal initiative by ambitious governors is not clear, but the final result was that for the first time virtually the whole area (the exception being perhaps the Basque lands) was controlled by one power.

What we now call Spain (and Portugal) consisted, at the time the Romans arrived, of tribal groups --often isolated by geographical barriers-- that paradoxically made conquest easier and harder.  Harder because Rome had to conquer or come to terms with each tribe in turn; easier because these tribes could offer no cohesive opposition to the newcomers. Nevertheless, the Romans met enormous resistance, especially from the Celts of the north and north west, and the struggle for the peninsula lasted almost 200 years, significantly longer than the 10 years it took Julius Caesar to conquer neighbouring Gaul (modern France), or the 50 required to overcome British resistance. In all, the Romans controlled the Iberian Peninsula for roughly six hundred years, more than enough time to leave a lasting impression.


We can divide the conquest into two general periods, the first following the defeat of the Carthagininans (205 BC) and ending with the fall of the town of Numancia/Numantia 133 BC, and the second extending from 29 to 18 BC.

The first period is the one of greatest expansion and greatest resistance. The methods employed by the Romans varied according to the circumstances; they knew how to take advantage of disputes between tribes. Some tribes conspired with the Romans to defeat their neighbours, some were frightened into submission, some were enticed, some deceived, and others defeated in battle.      

Main opposition ran roughly along an arc stretching from the head of the Duero valley to the present Portuguese-Spanish border and southward to the head of the Guadiana River. The first phase of Roman domination climaxes with two individual and collective exploits of defiance that now figure in all Spanish manuals, often exaggerated by myth. 

For 10 years or so (from ca. 147 BC to 138 BC. ) the Lusitanians in the west put up a spirited fight under a leader called Viriatus.

         Zamora: Statue of Viriatus.
                   © Vicmael.
The Lusitanians, pastoral by tradition, had seen their liberty reduced by the encroachment of the Romans. Their response was to harass the newcomers with raids.   Legend has it that Viriatus was a shepherd, but his organisational and military skills were second to none. He became leader after escaping the treacherous massacre of some 8.000 unarmed Lusitanians who had been promised peaceful terms by the Romans in 150 BC, following an embarrassing defeat for the Roman governor of Hispania Citerior, Sulpicus Galba. The duplicity carried out by Galba was such that it even provoked angry condemnation in Rome, and calls that he be handed over to the Lusitanians.

Employing guerrilla tactics, Viriatus caused a lot of damage as he moved his troops swiftly over large areas of the south and south-west of the peninsula.
Interestingly, a group of Portuguese volunteers for
the Nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War were
called "Viriatos."
He was defeated finally in 138 BC after two aides --bribed by the Romans-- murdered him when he was asleep.

Viriatus’s fighting tactics have since been described as the first example of the Spanish guerrilla fighter, and for many Spaniards and Portuguese, he has become an early instance of a “national” hero. A bronze statue now stands in the main square of Zamora (western Spain, on the river Duero) to celebrate his exploits.

The second centre of resistance takes us to the northern part of the Meseta, to Numancia, close to the town of Soria, on the upper stretches of the river Duero. Popular attention tends to focus on the lengthy resistance of the town, although the region itself was in internal turmoil for some 20 years (beginning around 154 and ending with the fall of Numancia in 133).

Numancia has become a legend, according to which --after a siege of more than a year-- its inhabitants, rather than surrender unconditionally, chose to set their city and themselves on fire. History, however, is a little less blind. Although there was a long siege and some of the enfeebled Numancians did die by their own hands, most surrendered. Some fifty were sent to Rome for the triumphal procession, the rest were sold as slaves and the town razed to the ground so that --like Carthage-- its memory might be obliterated.

The conquest of Numancia proved to be very difficult. In Rome, the senators were so angry with their army's lack of success that they sent one of their best generals --Scipio Aemilianus-- to take charge. Scipio came with the highest credentials: an iron disciplinarian, he was already famous for demolishing Carthage in 146 BC. He also came with a huge force,  300 catapults and even 12 elephants.

Scipio quickly moved to impose his will on the soldiers. Merchants and prostitutes were expelled from the camps, and comforts such as beds  and hot baths were prohibited. Breakfast was eaten on foot, daily marches in full kit became the norm, ditches were dug and stockades constructed. Only when he was satisfied did Scipio turn his attention to Numancia.

The Romans succeeded materially, but legend has preserved the name of Numancia endowing it with the defiant gesture of mass suicide that has come down as an example of collective will and pride. It is this version that Cervantes adopts in his play, El cerco de Numancia ("The Siege of Numancia"), the climax of which interestingly features a young child, Viriatus, who steals fame from the Romans at the end when he commits suicide.

Although Cervantes’s play might be interpreted as a case of national, i.e. Spanish resistance to a foreign power, it would be a mistake to adopt that view for the Numancians. On the contrary, it could be argued that it is an example of what has been seen as one of the weaknesses of the Spanish character, its centrifugal or separatist tendency in regional terms. It bears keeping in mind that more than half of the soldiers participating in the siege were natives from neighbouring tribes.

The fall of Numancia represents the culmination of the first period of Roman conquest of the peninsula, but it does not mean the end of hostilities. The various tribes, especially the Lusitani and the Celtiberians, proved difficult to control and rebelled several times. Perhaps Rome would have moved more decisively to conquer the rest of the peninsula following the defeat of Numancia, but two major civil wars within the Republic during the first century BC spilled across the Mediterranean onto Spanish soil, embroiling the tribes in battles that were not strictly directed at them. The details of those wars needn’t concern to us other than to remind us of how closely bound Hispania had become to events in Rome. The result of those conflicts was the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire under Octavian, better known as Augustus, the first emperor (27 BC-14 AD).

The rise of Augustus coincides with the second and final general phase of conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, directed now against the recalcitrant Celtic tribes of the north west. The decision responded perhaps to a wish to complete control of the peninsula, but equally persuasive was the rich gold deposit located just south of the Cantabrian Mountains. As long as the aggressive Celts of Asturias remained unconquered nearby, they posed a danger to the extraction of the mineral.

The Cantabrian Wars, as they are usually called, started around 29 BC, and for the next 10 years the Romans were engaged in hard battle in one of the most difficult areas of the peninsula, made up of steep hills and narrow valleys, frequently wet in summer and snowbound in winter.

           Hispania ca 29 BC.  Wikimedia. 
On top of that, the Celts also adopted guerrilla methods which were difficult for the Romans, accustomed to fighting in formation. The fighting was so savage and resistance so fierce that seven legions were called into duty. There was such a high loss of life that many Roman soldiers refused to fight or mutinied; soldiers of one of the legions, the I Augusta, even suffered the humiliation of being forbidden to use their legion name as a punishment for their incompetence. Roman persistence, however, eventually prevailed, but not before Augustus himself had to leave for Asturias to command the army in 26 BC.

The stubborn and savage resistance of the Asturians
against the Romans might have been reduced to a
mere blip in Spanish history had it been the only
occasion that the area was to prove itself fiercely
resistant to foreign intrusion.  But later invaders,
notably the Moors, were also to find Asturias
impregnable,and with time it was to implant itself
into popular imagination as one of the principal
symbols of Spanish values and tradition, embodied
even today in the official title of the heir to the
throne: the Prince of Asturias.
The final conquest of Hispania and the transition of the Roman political system from Republic to Empire both coincide with the rule of Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD). After conflicts lasting some two hundred years, the peninsula settled down to enjoy two hundred years of peace and prosperity under the famous pax romana (roughly 27 BC to 180 AD). It was now when Roman values were consolidated as towns and cities flourished, trade thrived and Hispania moved fully into the orbit of Roman life.


Anderson, James M      Spain 1001 Sights: An Archeological and Historical Guide London 1992
Collins, Roger     Spain: An Oxford Archeological Guide Oxford 1998
Richardson,  J. S.     The Romans in Spain Oxford 1996
Roldán, José Manuel      La España romana Madrid 1989
Tovar, A  and Blázquez, J.M.     Historia de la Hispania Roman Madrid 1976
Vincent, Mary and Stradling, R.A.     Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal Oxford 1994
Image of Viriatus:
Maps of Hispania: